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Kristallnacht: A Family Recollection

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On the night of November 8-9, the Nazis, even before the diplomat died, began murdering Jews who had been incarcerated in the concentration camp at Buchenwald. At least seventy were killed.

Starting just after midnight on November 10 and continuing throughout the day, paramilitary Stormtroopers of the SA Sturmabteilung (Storm Division) – some in their uniforms, others in civilian clothes – attacked Jews and Jewish property in a frenzy of destruction. Within minutes of midnight, nine of Berlin’s synagogues were set on fire. In Vienna, murderous SA thugs rampaged across the city. Nineteen synagogues and some seventy other Jewish institutions were torched and clouds of smoke shrouded the city. A reported 22 terrified Jews committed suicide amid the terror.

A wave of violence and murder swept across Germany and Austria. From the largest of cities to the smallest of hamlets – anywhere there were Jews or Jewish property – destruction was wrought. All told, more than 1,000 synagogues were ransacked and burned, at least 91 Jews were murdered, and tens of thousands of Jewish homes and businesses were vandalized. The Stormtroopers rounded up 30,000 Jewish men and imprisoned them in the concentration camps of Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Dachau.

* * * * *

After tense days not knowing her husband’s fate, Rosa at last learned that the men had been imprisoned in Dachau, some 225 miles to the east. My father manfully shouldered the burden of caring for his mother, his aunts, and their farms. He remembered, “That’s the way things were back then, we all just had to keep going.” And so he continued tending the livestock and fields “doing what we had to do to survive.”

After about six weeks, his father and uncles were released and returned home. Though my father was overjoyed at their return, the homecoming was tinged with great sadness. Philip’s health had been wrecked at the camp. It was very sad, my father recalled – “those months seemed to have aged my father by 10 years. His spirit was not broken but his health was.”

Before Kristallnacht, Philip had been hale and hearty but my father recalled how his complexion had turned sickly and how he suffered from a chronic cough and kidney difficulties. Philip somberly told my father of the terrible conditions at Dachau. The concentration camp guards had humiliated the Jewish prisoners; they were forced to stand for hours at a time in the wind-lashed camp parade ground and ordered to engage in calisthenics as the guards howled with laughter. At times they were forced to perform exhausting nonsense work, digging ditches only to immediately refill them and carrying heavy stones from one place to another for no reason.

His face stricken, Philip also told how the guards periodically executed “problem” prisoners and tortured others while the rest were forced to watch standing at attention. Philip had often given my father advice when he had to fight anti-Semitic bullies and now he had more. “Stay brave, keep your faith and don’t give up,” he counseled. “When you are cornered, say to yourself ‘Ivri anochi.’ That will help as things get worse.” And, indeed, life for Germany’s Jews did worsen.

Eleven months after Kristallnacht, the world was at war and the Jews remaining in Germany were trapped, including my father and his parents. In October 1940, they along with 15,000 other Jews from Southwest Germany were deported to internment camps in southern France. There my father lost his parents, his uncles and twenty-five other members of his extended family. Heeding his father’s advice of not giving up, he eventually escaped from a camp and joined the French Underground to fight the Nazis. At war’s end, considering Europe a graveyard for Jews, he emigrated to New York where he married and raised a Jewish family.

In all the years after the war, he returned only three times to his birthplace for brief visits, to show his family the home of his youth and to ensure that the village’s Jewish cemetery was treated respectfully. He refused to spend a night on German soil.

On his last visit some twenty years ago, my father took me to the place where his childhood synagogue had stood before its destruction on Kristallnacht. Now the site was just a vacant lot with a tiny plaque nearby to mark it. My father’s face was sorrowful as he reflected how important this site had been for the vanished Jewish community.

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